These days, there’s no shortage of parenting styles. But after working with thousands of families for more than 20 years, I’ve found positive parenting to be one of the most effective — and my personal favorite.
Unlike authoritarian parenting, which places high expectations on children with little responsiveness, or uninvolved parenting, where there is little nurturance or guidance, positive parenting is an empathy-based approach that involves techniques such as praise and firm compassion — rather than shouting, hostility, shaming or leveraging rewards.
In fact, studies have found that when parents resort to constant yelling or nagging, they typically end up feeling frustrated, angry and then guilty afterward. The kids, in turn, may feel frustrated and angry, too, and continue to misbehave.
In the end, very little changes, and the cycle is likely to repeat.
What is positive parenting?
Positive parenting isn’t a new framework. It’s been around since the 1920s (then called “positive discipline”), but really took off in the 1990s when influential American psychologist Martin Seligman popularized the field of positive psychology.
Parents who practice positive parenting don’t use harsh punishment to correct problematic behavior. Instead, they proactively fulfill their kids’ emotional needs through positive interactions.
When practiced early, I’ve seen that it can even help prevent bad behavior from happening in the first place.
According to Caley Arzamarski, a proponent of positive parenting and psychologist specializing in child therapy, positive parenting essentially encourages parents to “catch kids being good” and give more positive feedback, instead of always focusing on bad behavior.
Why psychologists support positive parenting
Some parents worry that positive parenting is too fluffy, arguing that children won’t learn to interpret and react to negative emotions if parents don’t help them to see it, which may not serve them well later in life.
However, psychologists have found that positive parenting can promote children’s confidence and provide them with the tools needed to make good choices. It also nurtures their self-esteem, creativity, belief in the future and ability to get along with others.
Of course, no parent is perfect. Karin Coifman, a psychologist at Kent State University who studies the importance of emotions, acknowledges that constantly projecting positivity is unrealistic, especially with challenging children.
At some point, “you’re going to get overwhelmed” and have to “express your concerns,” she says. “And that’s okay, too.”
How to practice positive parenting
1. Spend one-on-one time together
Spending regular quality time with your kids and modeling good behavior is by far the best thing you can do to help them develop self-confidence and healthy relationships.
Kids are hardwired to need positive attention and emotional connection. When they don’t receive it, they seek it out in negative ways, and parents are faced with power struggles, whining and meltdowns.
It only takes 10 to 15 minutes of individual time a day to see improvements. Delighting in moments of connection will also help you create a deeper and more meaningful relationship.
2. Set ‘when-then’ rules
Setting clear expectations is a core aspect of positive parenting. I recommend using the “when-then” method to encourage better behavior during the most challenging times of your child’s day.
Explain to your kid that when the yucky part of a dreaded task is done, then the more enjoyable things can happen. For example, they can use their iPad or play outside after their morning routine — brushing their teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast — if there’s enough time before the bus arrives.
Stick to this practice, and your kids will quickly learn to move through the routine on their own. No nagging required.
3. Say no to rewards
Studies have found that kids who are rewarded often are likely to lose interest in the activity they’re bring rewarded for, whether it’s music practice or playing nicely with a sibling. They become more interested in the rewards, meaning you may have to up keep up the rewards to maintain the same quality of behavior.
Using words is a better way to encourage kids. But avoid phrases that point to their character or personality, such as “You’re the best player on the team!” or “You’re so smart!”
Instead, praise the specific act. If your kid shows concern for someone who seems sad, for example, point out what they did right: “That was very nice of you to ask if your friend is okay.” Emphasize how the other person may have appreciated their kind gesture.
4. Say yes to appropriate consequences
When a child starts acting up, enforcing natural consequences can turn poor choices into learning opportunities.
Just make sure that:
- The consequence is fair and respectful
- The child is capable of handing the consequence
- You introduce the consequence in advance (this makes it feel like less of a punishment)
For example, if your child refuses to put on rain boots on a rainy morning, explain the natural consequence: Their socks will get soaked and their feet will feel uncomfortably wet the entire day.
This allows your child to choose whether or not to wear boots — and learn on their own what the right decision is.
5. Focus on what you can control
You can’t always control your child’s behavior, but you can control your responses. This mindset can help kids take on responsibilities that you’d otherwise have nag them about, like cleaning out their lunchbox.
You can say, for example: “I’m happy to add a fun snack to your school lunch, as long as your lunchbox has been emptied and cleaned.” Then help them find ways to remember their responsibility and follow through — perhaps with visual cues like a Sticky Note or a spot in the kitchen designated for their lunchbox.
Positive parenting is all about fostering respectful relationships built on clear expectations. When kids feel a strong connection to their parents, they’re more likely to behave appropriately and grow up to be resilient, confident, caring and responsible adults.
Amy McCready is a parenting expert, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and author of two bestselling books: “If I Have to Tell You One More Time: The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids To Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling” and “The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World.”